After it became clear that Joe Biden had beaten Donald Trump in 2020, Chuck Schumer exclaimed, “Now we take Georgia, then we change the world.” It is understandable that Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, would say such a thing to rally the troops. After all, he needed to convince already weary Democratic voters to give one last push after exerting all of their force to banish Trump from the White House.
But in truth, the whole reason that Schumer needed to rally the troops was that he and Democrats had utterly flopped in their attempt to flip the Senate in November. They only beat two incumbent Republicans in Arizona and Colorado when there had been hopes at one point that they could flip seats in Iowa, North Carolina, Maine and even states like Montana. In addition, they had failed to hold Senate seats in Florida, Missouri, North Dakota and Indiana in 2018, giving them only 48 Senate seats. All the while, Democrats in the House actually lost seats in their majority in 2020 after winning it from Republicans in 2018.
These failures meant that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock’s victories would not be a chance for bold, fundamental change but instead a chance to build a fragile coalition at the mercy of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. In turn, much of the Democrats’ legislative agenda was dead long before Ossoff and Warnock’s wins and long before Biden took the oath of office.
That is not what Democrats – ranging from Joe Biden to Nancy Pelosi – sold their voters. Breathless stories billed Biden as the second coming of beloved liberal heroes Franklin D Roosevelt or even Lyndon B Johnson. And Biden did nothing to stop this, even inviting historians to talk about presidents who transformed countries for the better during crises. This was likely a mix of sincerity and a means to mollify supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who might not have been otherwise ecstatic about voting for Uncle Joe.
But now, as Manchin once again imperils Democrats’ domestic agenda (he most recently asked for a pause in negotiations on a pared-down budget reconciliation bill – which was a compromise on a $1.75 trillion package, itself a compromise on a $3.5 trillion package, which in turn was a compromise – it is clear the entire party failed to manage expectations for their voters. And now they are paying a terrible price.
The party has found itself completely unable to address the very legitimate concerns of their voters – from an impending climate crisis, to improving health care, to protecting abortion rights in response to the Supreme Court overrule. They were promised that a Democratic majority in Congress, however small it may be, and a Democratic president, however incrementalist he might have been, could deliver the bold and progressive change they sought. Basically nothing has happened. And now Biden and co are asking Democratic voters to go to the ballot box for them again in the midterms, preferably in even bigger numbers. How do they suppose that’s going to go down?
To be fair to Democrats, telling people to temper their expectations does not maximize turnout. Had they run on that message in 2020, it is unlikely they would have flipped the two Senate seats in Georgia or even had enough progressive voters to put Biden over the top. Those progressives may very well have otherwise stayed at home.
But tempting voters with false promises means when those expectations are not met, voters are not only disappointed; they are thoroughly enraged. Democrats promised something for everyone. They did so by hatching a cockamamie plan to pass anything that Republicans would not support into a massive bill they’d hope to pass through reconciliation – which would allow them to avoid a GOP filibuster and only pass legislation with 51 votes. This meant that when Manchin came out against it, Democrats’ plans for childcare, climate change, immigration reform, and Medicare also evaporated.
It would be easy to solely skewer Manchin and Sinema. And they do deserve most of the blame for stringing along their compatriots. Manchin, in particular, has also been incredibly inconsistent in his demands. But Schumer deserves a heavy amount of blame himself. Manchin explicitly told Schumer last summer that he didn’t want the reconciliation bill to cost any more than $1.5 trillion — and the fact that Schumer failed to tell others about this meant he allowed hopes to rise quicker than gas prices.
Nancy Pelosi also deserves some of the blame, for promising too many things to different factions. She promised progressives that they would get paid family leave despite Manchin’s objections. She promised moderates there’d be a vote on the infrastructure bill by the end of September and then let them eat dirt when that deadline passed.
Each faction of Democrats deserves some blame, too. Moderates essentially held Build Back Better hostage and forced a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. They are now throwing a temper tantrum about not wanting any tax increases and chiding progressives for being fiscally irresponsible. This came after moderates essentially wanted what amounted to a massive tax cut for wealthy people in Democratic-voting states, the height of fiscal malpractice.
Meanwhile, progressives have consistently failed to articulate to the White House and Manchin what are non-negotiables and what could be sacrificed to make him happy. They have died on every hill and paid the price for it.
By setting expectations so high and by making Biden seem like a potentially transformative president, Democrats on all sides of Pennsylvania Avenue find themselves in a massive malaise. While Biden’s American Rescue Plan passed back in 2021— a bill which included a child tax credit that was supposed to combat poverty — it is now lapsed. Those Covid-era poverty-busting provisions have run out and aren’t being replaced, even as we stare down the barrel of a possible recession. And while Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, he did so after Mitch McConnell solidified a 30-year, ultra-conservative majority. The overturn of Roe v Wade is testament to how little it means to have Jackson on the court these days.
Democrats now need to convince their voters to turn out in the midterms. They’re promising that they need just two more Senate seats to protect abortion rights. That may partially be true, but it elides the fact they are likely to lose the House, which would kill any chances of doing what they say.
Once again, Democrats are trying to keep people’s hopes up, only to reap the whirlwind when they come up short. And nobody can bear to be honest about that fact.